Posts tagged Henri Bergson

Students Write about Dewey; Givers and Takers Delayed

According to my blog yesterday I WAS going to write something about “givers and takers” but it will be delayed to tomorrow when I can get some of my students’ input about their opinions on their high school and university teachers, those who are “givers” and the others who are “takers.” 

I was going to write on this because recently I was in the presence of a “taker.”  They are no fun simply because they are unhappy people and want others to share in their unhappiness.  They project their un-joy on others simply because they are miserable.  They usually elbow their way up to the top and do not care to give other people help along the way.  Well, perhaps their form of “help” is to give advice and think they know more.  “Takers” lack soul or spirit and our university abounds with that kind of joyless person.  They are here to supposedly teach Kazakhstan’s future or they are here as administrators but do it for the hefty salary and not much else.  Our university is the best paid institution in the whole country.

Fortunately, I spent the weekend with “givers” and it was refreshing. They are here to volunteer their time for the good of Kazakh society.  Sometimes there are eternal benefits in giving your time and effort to your students, as teachers who give “all out” in the classroom week in and week out, we may never know the impact we have.  I want to be a “giver” teacher and not a “taker.”

For now, I want to share with you some of my students’ writings from my two listening classes.  They write from their heart and I learn from my young charges every day.

Listening students write about John Dewey’s “a problem is necessary to start thought.”

A.A. I agree with him [Dewey], first of all, because I have problems too, not so global, but still they’re problems and when not solving them in time, they become harder to solve.  For example, some home assignments, which have quite big quantity of work.  You have free time, but decide to relax or have some fun or chill out any other ways.  Due to deadline, you’ve got a lot of undone job, so it becomes a bigger issue than it was previously.

Nomad civilizations of Central Asia, for example, our ancestors.  Their dividing of tribes and families according to territorial principle didn’t help them to defend themselves from outer enemies.  It was a problem to unite them, and as a result our nation suffered a lot beginning with “clan” wars and continuing with joungars, Chinese expansions, Central Asian kingdoms or Russian colonization (sometimes becoming invasion).  But then, after a while we have independence again and do not have such problems because we solved it.

D.M. – I want to say about Kazakhstan when it was in USSR, our grand-grandparents worked hard, it was difficult to survive, after being independent country, KZ had too many problems; we didn’t have a national currency until 1993, our population had to work 10-12 hours a day, but now our country is developing, I think that if we didn’t have such problems in the past, we wouldn’t achieve a lot in present.

A.B. Like in the time of Soviet Union, maybe you had a great idea, but you couldn’t realize it because of your country.  For example, a Nobel prize winner (Literature) Boris Pasternak couldn’t take a prize because if he would, he could be punished for this.  So his country didn’t let him do what he should.  But he sent a letter to the committee of Nobel prize.  There he said that he was very pleased and honored to be a winner.  But unfortunately, because of the views considered in his motherland, he can’t appear to take the prize.  He hopes that someday it would be like so.

R.S. When we were elementary students we do not have any home tasks, we go and doing nothing.  But when our tutors give us many self-study essays, etc. we try to do these all and we become more aware of things we haven’t known before.


S.N. Both quotes by Toynbee and Bergson have similar meaning, in both of them problems are “tackling fuels” of solving problems.  When you have problems, you start thinking hard and if you don’t have any problems, you don’t think, that means you’re not developing.  Lack of development leads to decadence of living level.


How does “Necessity is the mother of invention” and “thinking outside the box” relate to today?

A.O. “The first quote I can explain on the USSR’s example.  In time, when people couldn’t buy anything, because of special politics, people should think about how to make by their hands.  And what usually people from the West bought in the shops, we already had it hand made.”


A.Z. “Thinking outside the box’ is about creative people.  They are unordinary, they think differently from other people.  They don’t just see the easiest ways but their minds broaden and their thoughts are also very complicated, advanced, outside the box.  I hope there are more creative people, they really make our lives more interesting.”


K.O. I think these phrases relate in these terms, how I love to say: “As many men, as many minds and thoughts.”  I think that practically all people have their own minds and it is very important thing in our time because of this you will be creative and democrat.


O.A. I think these relate to motivation, because we are lazy.  People have motivation to do nothing and for this they create new devices, technology.  People don’t want to do it themselves, by hand, that’s why they create something new, which helps to do some hard work, etc.  But there are some things which people can’t do it on their own.  In this case, invention is very helpful for all people.

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Thoughts on Old Books and Kazakhstan’s Future

I love old books.  Their archaic language and non-politically correct rhetoric contrasts with where digital thinking has taken us into the twenty-first century.  I particularly love the books with yellowed pages which are heavily underlined or highlighted.  They are marked up in the margins because earlier readers have diligently pored over their contents and absorbed their most salient thoughts.  Perhaps digital thinking has too much of the special effects and mumbling going on, just like Hollywood’s contemporary movies.  Where are the movies that spit out good and snappy lines that zing?  Where are the books?

I know I am getting into dangerous territory when I start to define “old” because a book I picked up to read the other day (which I carried in my 50 pound limited suitcase from the U.S.) was younger than me.  The first edition came out in 1962 titled “Thinking and Speaking: A Guide to Intelligent Oral Communication.”  The authors: Otis M. Walter and Robert L. Scott, the latter from my alma mater of University of Minnesota, had many nuggets of wisdom to grasp.  I especially liked the chapter dealing with “thoughts on problems.”  We have plenty of problems at our university.

I particularly liked Scott’s quoting John Dewey, the much revered educational philosopher who believed  “a problem is necessary to start thought.”  Dewey also claimed, “No man, even begins to think until he first notes a perplexity, a need, or a ‘felt difficulty.’”  Oh, yes, we have plenty of “felt difficulties” in our Kazakh run department at our “western-style” university.  *I* feel the difficulties. Professor Scott also wrote that when we are absorbed in petty problems, our thoughts are correspondingly petty.  So true, so true.

For example, last year I recall when our faculty were all gathered together to express concerns to those high up in administration.  It seemed not many had anything to say about what bothered them.  Though under the surface I knew there were MANY problems in our department.  People were afraid to speak out because of potential reprisals against them later.  Repression against my fellow teachers takes on many forms.  Such was the stilted atmosphere in this mandatory gathering where one bravely ventured to talk about how bad the food was at our student canteen.  I begged to differ because I recall when I was on this same campus in 1993, the canteen had watered down gruel or porridge for breakfast and carrot slop every day for lunch and supper.  They also had forks with only 2 tines instead of the standard four.  Don’t pick on the food people. Let’s look at the “food for thought” and what passes for education at our institution of higher learning.  Not our finest moment when educators collectively look to an easy target, such as the student canteen, instead of the “elephant in the room” problems that continue to exist.

According to this old book, when we look at civilization, problems bring out man’s best.  Arnold Toynbee showed that “each civilization of the past arose, not because the living was easy and man had time to think, but because the living was extremely difficult and to survive, man was jolted into the necessity of thought.”  Henri Bergson was added in his quote, “Those societies that have remained primitive, are those that the living was too easy and which never required stretching minds to solve demanding problems.”  I think Kazakhstan have very fine minds because they were stretched in solving problems on how to survive the rugged steppes for 1,000s of years.

The motivation to survive as a culture or society presents problems no matter what age we live in.  Kazakhstan wants to be considered one of the top 50 nations amongst other developed nations by 2030.  I witnessed when I taught in China in 1986-88 that my Chinese students wanted to help their “Motherland.” Back then I kept hearing that it was all about reform, reform, reform.  Look where China is today as an economic powerhouse? (never mind the human rights issues)  There can be the energizing forces that stimulate activity and drives man on to greater achievements. Or so this old book went on to posit.  I asked my listening students for examples of what cultures have thrived and survived because of difficulties and which ones have had it easy and are still primitive.  We had a lively discussion concerning Eskimos compared to those who live in the tropics and those who live in other developed cultures.

I next talked about creativity and my Kazakh students were very aware of the saying: “Necessity is the mother of invention.”  But there needs to be a perceived need for a change.  Some of the older Kazakh teachers are fine with the status quo, some are still living in the twentieth century and not wanting to engage their students in this century’s digital age.  I could write much more about this topic, at a later date when I gather more information from my students about their being “digital natives.”  I focused on creativity in art is an artist’s wish to express something in a different way from the current style.  For many of my teaching colleagues who were trained in the Soviet way of thinking, they tend not to “think outside the box.”  They still believe that “initiative is punitive.”  If they are creative with solving problems, they think they will be punished.  Perhaps that is true, so petty problems continue to produce petty thoughts.

My final point that I brought up with my listening students was about democracy.  The authors of the book claimed that only a democratic state has institutionalized the possibility of locating and solving problems.  In our institution, and particularly in my department, I think there is too much top down direction and no chance to address concerns or problems in a democratic way.  Another way to put it according to Professor Scott, “only a democratic state is persistently responsive to problems of the people and thus offering a possibility of continued growth through perpetual problem solving.”  I wish it might be true about our middle management in our department, but sadly they are caught up in their own petty manipulations.

Therefore, the reason I am still here in Kazakhstan after two years as a western teacher is that I can be a change agent for good.  I agree with the authors when they write, “Problems are the great dynamos behind the development of man and his society.”  Our institution should be more intentional with its motto, “Education to change society.”  I think that when working with the future of Kazakhstan, there can be dynamic changes for the good of the whole country.  As a listening and writing teacher, I look into one hundred faces of these future “change agents” every week in my five different classrooms.  They are Kazakhstan’s hope.  However, unsolved problems within our own department “is the cancer that weakens and destroys an institution or a civilization.”  Let that not be so.

(Thoughts to be continued)

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